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Berger on Wine: Local wine icons gather at Coppola

The small room at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville last Friday provided a respite from a cold rain that forced four dozen folks to huddle up against a wine bar and jostle for sips of four dozen wines they all had brought to share.

Most of the wines, surprisingly, were rather young given the average age of the crowd - about age 70. Or more.

This was one of the least-known events in the state’s wine industry. It takes place a few times a year. There is never any fanfare. It’s by invitation only.

Nothing substantial ever takes place other than a good meal, and old friends sharing stories from decades ago. In some cases, many decades.

But as the self-introductions began, it was clear that the assembled represent some of the most iconic names ever to make and market wine over the last century in the state’s North Coast. Most are from Sonoma and Napa counties.

And dozens of the names ring bells: Dorothy Tchelistcheff (widow of André, unquestionably the state’s greatest wine maestro); Andre’s successor, Dr. Richard Peterson, and his daughter and son-n-law, Heidi Peterson Barrett (Screaming Eagle, Grace Family and more) and Bo Barrett (Chateau Montelena); Mike Martini (Louis M. Martini); Jim Pedroncelli; Rob Davis (Jordan); Steve MacRostie (Hacienda, MacRostie), Fred Cline (Cline Cellars).

David Ramey (Simi, David Ramey wines); Greg Fowler (Mumm Napa, Constellation Wines), David Stare (Dry Creek Vineyards), Corey Beck (Coppola); Bruce Rector (Glen Ellen, Ooh and Ahh); Zelma Long (Mondavi, Simi and numerous international projects).

It also included grape growers Andy Beckstoffer and Bob and Crawford Cooley; and, executives Alan Hemphill, Walt Klenz, Dick Maher, Brice Jones (Sonoma-Cutrer, Emeritus), Pete Downs (Jackson Family); and brilliant wine retailer Darrell Corti from Sacramento.

“How many years in the wine business are represented in this room?” asked former winemaker, now executive Rob McNeil (Foppiano) rhetorically.

When Bo entered the room, I said, “Hey, you’re too young to be here.”

Barrett, whose winery’s 1973 Chardonnay was one of two California winners of the 1976 Tasting of Paris against French wine, shot back, “I just turned 65, so I belong!”

The only somber moment preceded the luncheon when Zelma Long recognized the great work that Mary Ann Graf (best known for her work at Simi) did as longtime winemaker and enologist.

Graf died in February at age 76 after a struggle against pancreatic cancer,

One attendee was the vibrant, jocular winery founder and winemaker Frank Pastori, who just turned 99.

There were few speeches as the attendees introduced themselves, but Corti, an iconic retailer, implored the assembled that they all had a major responsibility.

After noting the many attacks on all alcoholic beverages as life-threating, Corti said the assembled had an obligation to remind the American public that wine consumption leads to a long and happy life.

The Old-Timers’ Luncheon was created by wine and grape broker Joe Ciatti, who even though he retired has continued the tradition through the kindness of various wineries who host the events.

Hank and Katie Wetzel of Alexander Valley Vineyards are considering hosting the next Old-Timers’ event in September.

The event is not open to the public.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country on Wednesdays with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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